Lucille was my maternal grandmother. She was born and raised in the hills of Oklahoma in the early 1900s. She married my grandfather when she was twelve, something she was uncomfortable admitting for the rest of her life. My great-grandmother was a widow with four children, which undoubtedly weighed in her decision to give her permission for my grandmother to marry at such a young age. There’d be one less mouth to feed at a time when there was no guarantee there’d be enough food to go around.
Although my grandparents didn’t live in the hardest hit area, in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl many farmers they knew were relocating to California in search of a more prosperous life. They became field workers in the burgeoning San Joaquin Valley. Their experiences weren’t dissimilar to those of the families portrayed in The Grapes of Wrath. My grandmother worked side-by-side with my grandfather in the fields. We don’t usually think of it this way, but this was one of the few places where women were paid the same as men for similar work since the workers were paid by the number of pounds of cotton they picked or trays of grapes they cut to be dried into raisins. Even though she was performing the same manual labor as my grandfather, in keeping with the culture of the time, she turned over all the money she earned to him. As the “man of the family,” he was expected to manage all the money and make all the financial decisions.
My mother tells the story of watching my grandmother work so hard in the fields and wanting to do something to make her life easier. In the fall after my mother turned 10, she approached the head cook at her school with a request. Were there any openings in the kitchen there that her mother could fill so she would no longer have to work out in the hot sun every day? The head cook was a compassionate woman and soon my grandmother had a job in the school kitchen.
I don’t know if it was while she was employed there at the school, or whether it was later after she’d begun working in the kitchen at the nursing home, but at some point there began to be a shift in the way decisions were made about money in the family. Grandma began to take some of her earnings and buy some nicer things for the house than grandpa would have done. She began to buy a few more clothes for herself. She opened an account at the bank in town and began to deposit her paychecks there. These changes were not without some negative reactions from my grandfather. On more than one occasion he (fairly loudly) accused her of wasting money. Since the depression, he’d had a strong suspicion of all banks and was convinced that she was going to lose all her money by depositing it in the bank. My grandmother kept the bank account and, even though she felt guilty at times, she continued to buy a few nice things for herself and the house.
My grandmother never had the luxury of deciding whether or not she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom or pursue a career. She had children to feed and bills to pay, and a farmer’s income is neither large nor steady. There was no question but that she would hold down a job. The family needed the money she earned. She was up before dawn every work day, driving the 10 or 11 miles into town from the farm. During the winter, she’d battle the heavy fog that regularly blankets the central valley of California at that time of year. How she hated and feared driving in the fog! But she got up every day and drove in the dark and the fog because she knew the residents of the nursing home were relying on her and her team to prepare their meals, and because that’s just what you do when you have a job….you do your job.
My grandmother never thought of herself as a feminist. However, she was happy to see her daughter and granddaughters having more opportunities than she’d ever had to make their own decisions, have good jobs and manage their own money. Above all else, my grandmother was a survivor. She taught me by her life and her actions that in the midst of incredibly challenging circumstances, it is still possible to find reasons to laugh and to love and to keep moving forward.
As Women’s History Month ends this week, I’m looking at the lives of several women who have influenced who I am and how I live my life, a series I’m calling “These Women.” The other posts in the series will tell you more about why I’m focusing on these women, about the woman who showed me how men and women can partner together, about the woman who inspired my sense of purpose, and about the woman who challenges me to live a well-examined life. I’m writing about a different woman each day this week and hope these stories inspire you to look for the influential women in your own life and celebrate the gifts they’ve given you.